How to talk to a tailor

Monday, September 12th 2016
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I get nervous talking to tailors.

Not to stumble or stutter, but there will always be a point where I want to bring something up, and hesitate.

Being in tailor's is intimidating, whether on Savile Row or not. In fact most shops can be intimidating - you often feel ill-at-ease, slightly dreading the inevitable 'can I help you?' inquiry.

(There is a trend at the moment in restaurants for waiters to behave more like people, less like servants. Less formality; more just helpfulness and politeness. I wish there were more of that.)

Perhaps most surprisingly, talking to a tailor/shoemaker/shirtmaker can be nerve-wracking even when it's someone you know well, after years of custom.

There are several reasons for this.

One, you are often asked for your opinion on something you are not entirely sure about (doubtless a reason many read this blog).

Two, the things you might bring up are often critical, and therefore awkward.

And three, there is a sharp asymmetry of knowledge: he is a master craftsman, you are not. (And on the flip side, you have spent hours looking at suit styles from around the world; he has not.)

It is important to try to get over this, because communication is key in any bespoke appointment.

A tailor cannot know your presumptions of style; a shoemaker cannot know how you like your shoes to fit.

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I have failed to communicate effectively on several occasions in the past, and always regretted it. I'm a lot better now, but there are few things I always try to remember.

First, be polite and respectful. Even if you think something is hilariously outdated, or plain wrong, express your point with respect. This may seem obvious, but it's amazing how often nerves can become indignation and confrontation.

Second: you don't have to decide everything on the spot. Standing in front of a mirror, wearing a half-made pair of trousers, is not always the easiest time to make a decision. Walking away and emailing your choice the next day won't delay anything.

Third, prepare in advance. Obviously reading a lot is helpful, but also:

  • wear similar clothes you like, to compare them with the pieces being fitted;
  • think about what cut and style you want in advance, in fact about every question you might be asked; and
  • bring pictures if that's easier than describing things in words.

Fourth: if you're not sure, ask questions. There's nothing wrong with asking a question, and it may throw up something you hadn't previously realised. 

For example, you may not realise that the first, basted fitting is mostly for the tailor, so he can set the right balance to the garment. The second fitting is more for you - to make decisions about style. 

Fifth and last, if in doubt be open and honest. There's nothing worse than a missed opportunity. 

One reader related an experience where he was slightly disappointed with an initial suit, but considered going back because there seemed to be so much potential. He asked whether this was crazy.

The answer probably depends on whether the tailor can change, and correct those points. It's something you'll really only learn from a conversation with him.

Which is a lot easier to say than do.

Photography: Fitting at Ferdinando Caraceni in Milan, with Nicolleta Caraceni pictured. Shot by Luke Carby